Who Were the First Novelists?
Interestingly enough, there is just as much debate over who the first novelists were as there is over where the novel came from. Just as Giambattista Vico and the Romanticists debated over whether Homer or Plato influenced the novel more—whether the novel was an extension of the epic or of the dialogue—authors such as John Mullen and Milan Kundera offer differing opinions as to when the novel came into being.
According to John Mullen’s article “The rise of the novel,” works such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela were two of the world’s first novels—revolutionary for their focus on the inner lives and moral dilemmas of everyday people. Yet, the noble sentiment of these two works marked by a fascination with “moral intensity” was not at all different from that of Shakespearean plays or Homeric epics.
Mullen argues that Henry Fielding’s Shamela, a parody-novel of Richardson’s Pamela, as well as his more popular work Tom Jones, brings a lot of humor to the artform of the novel through its parodic nature. Tom Jones can be described as a “mock epic”: it follows an average man as he tries to navigate modern society through hilarious adventures and dilemmas. It takes what came before it and makes fun of it. While Richardon’s Pamela concerns a little girl’s dilemma over whether or not she should accept the love of her schoolteacher, Field’s Shamela concerns a little girl’s attempts at seducing her schoolteacher—a biting, controversial take on the original, more didactic story.
Milan Kundera similarly picks up on this humorous aspect of the art of the novel; however, he places its origins even earlier with the works of François Rabelais and Miguel de Cervantes, rather than with the works of Defoe and Fielding. In the final chapter of his Art of the Novel, Kundera argues that the novel was not born out of philosophical dilemmas and solutions such as those that were seen in the works of Richardson. The novel was born of Rabelais’ and Cervantes’ awareness of “God’s laughter,” as God looked down on humans as an ignorant species that failed to understand anything the second that they started thinking.
Kundera further argues that the novel is a uniquely new form of writing because it depends more on questioning itself—through the various plots, plurality of characters, and writing styles that inhabit it—than on making claims, as a history or a philosophical essay would. Hence, the novel must concern itself less with morals or religion, and more with humor: the novel is a way for humanity to make fun of itself for its own frailty, letting playfulness infiltrate every aspect of the novel from the characters to the plot to the structure and style.
While Mullen’s analysis defines the novel as a parody of the epic, Kundera defines the novel as dialogic. This somewhat mirrors the debate between Vico and the Romanticists. As Kundera outlines, there is a constant dialogue between God and humanity, between one character and another, between one style and another. The author creates a dialogue throughout the novel that is just as interesting as it is ultimately futile and unresolved. Mullen focuses on the novel’s humorous ability to transfigure the everyman into a laughable hero, while Kundera emphasizes the novel’s ability to hold a plurality of different aspects that create a sort of circus.
Regardless, both Kundera and Mullen agree on the fact that the novel, even in its own name, must be something new. Just as Fielding created Shamela in order to take Pamela to the next level of writing, so too did Cervantes make the readers of his time challenge contemporary literature and question their own roles as readers.
Kundera, Milan, and Linda Asher. The Art of the Novel. Harper Perennial, 2006.
Kundera, Milan, and Linda Asher. Testaments Betrayed: an Essay in Nine Parts. Harper Collins, 1995.
Mullen, John. “The Rise of the Novel.” The British Library, The British Library, 11 Apr. 2018, www.bl.uk/restoration-18th-century-literature/articles/the-rise-of-the-novel#.
Last Fact Checked on May 28th, 2021.